Many people with seasonal allergies are struggling right now, trapped in a vicious cycle of coughing, sneezing, wheezing and itching.
If this sounds like you, you might be wondering what’s going on. Is this allergy season particularly brutal, or do your symptoms just seem worse because you were inside and not exposed to many allergens in spring 2020? Or is it all in your head?
According to allergists, it’s not just you. It’s true your allergies may feel worse this year. Here’s the deal — and how to find some relief:
Climate change and the pandemic are playing a huge role
“Year over year, we’re finding climate change is a major factor in worsening symptoms for spring and fall pollen seasons,” said Kenneth Mendez, the CEO and president of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
The rising temps and increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are making pollen seasons heavier and longer. Allergy season is now 10 days longer than it was in 1990, and trees, grass and weeds are producing 21% more pollen. More pollen means more runny noses, watery eyes and itchy throats.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing an increase in pollen counts on a yearly basis, and this is due to global warming and an increase in CO2, which we know plays a role in higher pollen counts,” said Payel Gupta, an allergist and immunologist and medical director of the at-home allergy clinic Cleared.
The recent (and earlier) warm weather we’re seeing this year — and in the past few years — is to blame. Plants bloom in warm weather, then tree, grass and weed pollen pick up and fly into the air around us.
In the past, warm weather didn’t appear until April or so, delaying pollen-producing plants from blooming. But it’s been getting warmer earlier year after year. Some areas in the Northeast saw 70-degree days as early as January this year. On top of that, the first freeze we typically see each fall is happening later in the year. Mendez said this keeps flowering pants like ragweed — a major source of allergies — alive and well.
Grass pollen is higher than usual this year across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, Accuweather notes. The Midwest is also experiencing a bad tree pollen season thanks to higher than normal blooms. Weed pollen is trending to be higher than what we usually see each year, too. (People are being hit the hardest in Scranton and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; Wichita, Kansas; McAllen, Texas; Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, according to AAFA’s latest report on allergies.)
“Higher pollen counts means more pollen exposure, which means more allergic symptoms for those who are allergic to tree pollen in the spring, grass in the summer and weeds in the fall,” Gupta said.
Allergy season was also brutal in 2020. But last spring, people were mostly hanging out at home and wearing masks when they did go outside. This year, people are spending more time outside, sometimes without a mask. This could be “contributing to the perception of allergies being ‘worse than usual,’” said Stephanie Leeds, a Yale Medicine pediatric allergist and immunologist and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine.
There’s another theory that could help explain why people may be experiencing worse allergies after lockdown: Some experts believe being exposed to allergens like pollen over time can help you build up tolerance. If you take away the exposure, the tolerance wanes. More research is needed to determine if this could be the case, though.
How to alleviate your allergy symptoms
Leeds recommended wearing a brimmed hat and sunglasses to keep pollen out of your eyes and nose. A solid rinse can also work wonders after spending time outside.
“Wash your hands and face after being outdoors for long periods of time, and consider changing your clothes,” she said.
If you are particularly sensitive, limit your time outdoors on poor air-quality days. Consider washing your eyes and nose with a saline solution. You might also want to swap out your contact lenses for eyeglasses, as pollen can cling onto lenses and irritate the eye. Cleaning your lenses more frequently and opting for daily disposable contacts can also help relieve itchy, watery eyes.
Pollen can get trapped inside your home, so keep your windows shut and car doors closed. Vacuum often to get rid of allergens trapped in your carpet. If you have AC, set it to nonrecirculated air.
AAFA also recommends using a HEPA air filter to purify the air in your house. And pets can be pollen magnets, so giving “them a good rub down is a good idea after a springtime walk,” Gupta said.
You might also want to hold onto your face mask a bit longer. The masks we use to protect ourselves against the coronavirus act as a barrier against pollen, too. The better the mask, the better the protection.
“N95 masks are ideal for this, but standard masks most people are using to protect one another from COVID-19 also work,” Mendez said.
If your symptoms persist or worsen, give your doctor or allergist a call. There are lots of over-the-counter allergy medications and sprays that can alleviate your symptoms, as well as some heavy-duty treatments if needed. Other than that, you can do whatever you can to fight against climate change — it looks like our allergies are only going to get worse.
“If we don’t slow down the climate change cycle, pollen production will only intensify,” Mendez said.